It has been nearly a year and a half since Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico and the Caribbean islands. The storm had an estimated death toll of over 3,000 people, as well as causing roughly $80 billion in damages. The devastation of the storm reverberates through the island still today, with the fear that another storm could come along and do the same thing.
The Damage Done
Arguably, the most devastating damage Maria inflicted was on the island’s electrical grid. Maria damaged or completely destroyed 80% of the grid in Puerto Rico. An estimated 1.5 million people lost power, nearly half of Puerto Rico’s 3.3 million population, as a result of the storm, making it the largest blackout in US history. Small businesses suffered greatly as well. Of the 400 small businesses in Puerto Rico, 77% lost power, further disrupting the island’s already precarious financial situation.
The governor of Puerto Rico, Rico Ricardo Rosselo, and his administration projected that it would cost $139 billion in order to fully restore Puerto Rico to the state that it was in before the storm struck. Though, money is not the only thing that the island needs. David Ortiz, the head of El Puente Puerto Rico, a community-based organization with a Latino focus, stated: “I don’t think throwing a whole bunch of money in a short period of time is the answer. There needs to be long-term planning in terms of the recovery effort in Puerto Rico.”
While power may be back to the island currently, the ominous threat of the potential of another storm looms over the island with every hurricane season. The question becomes: How can the island recover in a way that prevents this level of devastation in the future?
Can Solar Power Prevent Another Disaster?
Puerto Rico’s power grid before the storm was considered 20 years out of date and the country produced roughly 98% of it’s energy from nonrenewable resources, mostly oil-fire plants. With such a vulnerable grid and unsustainable fuel source, which, for the island is mostly imported, many individuals are looking to turn to solar energy as a new primary fuel source with the intention of using the grid as a back-up power source. Online inquiries concerning solar power from Puerto Rico have risen in the thousands of percent and traffic to solar energy cost comparisons have sky-rocketed as well. Elon Musk and his company Tesla have been famously involved in bringing solar power to the island, bringing power back to children’s hospitals and several nonprofit organizations following an exchange on Twitter with the governor of Puerto Rico.
One of the major selling points of solar panels for the island are their heavy resistance to hurricane force winds. When affixed to a home, solar panels are capable of withstanding windspeeds of over 140-160 miles per hour, similar to the strength of category 4 and 5 storms. Some panels are built to withstand even stronger wind strengths. The durability of solar panels can help to prevent widespread loss of power following storms, which would, in turn, prevent undue loss of life caused by lack of power.
In addition to solar power being a more durable energy source, it is much more cost-effective for the residents of the island as well, and can even end up making them money. Further, implementing more widespread use of solar energy would help the island to achieve its goal of deriving 40% of its energy in order to meet climate goals.
Sluggish and Insufficient Responses
Many complications have impeded the recovery process for the island, which is still recovering. It was estimated that Puerto Rico would need $17 billion in order to repair the electrical grid, yet the US only gave them $2 billion for repairs. For total recovery, as previously stated, it would take an estimated $139 billion, while the US has only allocated $65 billion of funds for the overall recovery.
In addition to the drastic lack of funding, several legal obstacles prevent Puerto Rico from thinking long term with their recovery as well. Infamously, the Jones Act impeded recovery efforts by making it more expensive for help to be provided. Specifically, the Jones Act requires ships in US waters traveling between US ports to be built in the US, registered in the US, US owned, and run by crews that are made up of at least 75% US citizens. This policy greatly increases the cost of shipping necessary cargo, such as food, construction supplies, etc. around the US and to Puerto Rico. This makes it much more difficult to ship supplies and donations meant to help the island recover. Immediately after the storm, President Trump suspended the Jones Act for a 10-day term, though the suspension was not extended.
Another legal hurdle for the recovery process to overcome is the Stafford Act. The Stafford Act specifies that disaster relief funds can only be used to restore facilities back to the condition that they were in previous to the disaster. This means that the relief funds given to Puerto Rico may only be used to restore the grid to the outdated state that it was already in, which makes it ripe for renewed destruction when another storm blows through the island.
To learn more about the potential of solar energy for the island and the world, visit: ideasforus.org or the sources listed below.